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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday Evening Rant: Small Fields

The current phenomenon of small fields at premier tracks on prime race days has moved beyond embarrassing to outright disgusting. What the hell is going on?

It’s bad enough that superior horses like Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta scare off competitors, resulting in small fields, but it’s ridiculous when lesser races suffer from the same fate. For example, on Memorial Day, race 8 at Churchill Downs (an upper-level AOC) went off with three starters—Old Man Buck, Real Appeal and Jamaludin—after five scratches, over a track rated “good.” Today at Belmont Park, where the track was rated “fast,” there were just three runners in the Lord of the Night Stakes—after four scratches. By the way, congratulations, Cool Coal Man, for your wire-to-wire victory over Discreet Treasure and True Resurgence—not that he needs it, but that had to be some of the easiest earned black-type ever.

I’m not complaining about races taken off the turf, but races obviously run over perfectly fine tracks—and for decent money. While it might be easy to say racing secretaries simply aren’t doing their jobs well, are there other possibilities? In both aforementioned cases, these were route races on dirt for three-year-olds and up. Is it possible that we are reaping the results of all the early retirements, either to injury or stud duty, of top young horses over recent years? Or too by breeding for speed, not stamina is there a dearth of quality route horses? And, of course, the big white elephant in the room—are there simply too damn many tracks holding too many races?

Whatever the reasons are, I’m sick of wagering (or more precisely, not wagering) on these short field events—and I’m sure others are as well. Thus, handle goes down and racing continues to teeter on the brink of financial ruin. It’s time for all involved parties to step up, and permit a racing “czar” or other central authority to establish racing circuits, lessen the number of race dates, and better co-ordinate major stakes races. Bigger and more competitive fields now!


Glenn Craven said...

Bill Finley over at wrote a column about this, suggesting fewer dates and and "regional circuits" in which one track is closed while others are open. Specifically he mentioned closing Arlington while Churchill is in session. He also suggested closing Mountaineer while Charles Town is open.

Clearly Finley and others aren't following the minor tracks. Charles Town on Friday and Saturday had average entered fields of around nine horses -- and the starting gates there only hold 10. I'd say they're close to full. At Mountaineer, the entries were 8.1 per race on one night and 8.7 on another, same night that CT was averaging around 9 entries.

Check out Indiana Downs. On the Monday card -- Monday, mind you, not a weekend -- there are 108 horses entered in 10 races. Some of the fields have up to 16 including AE list.

There is NOT a horse-shortage problem. There is a willingness to race problem at some of these major tracks, usually, it appears, among the bigger trainers.

I hope to go into this at length in a future blog post of mine, or perhaps even a more formal media setting. ... We shall see.

Valerie said...

I agree with you, Glenn, that it isn't the smaller tracks per se that are the problem (although certainly the quality of that racing is a whole other issue...). However, there certainly does appear to be problems in fielding races in California, Kentucky, Florida and the Mid-Atlantic corridor, all where the tracks and races outnumber horses willing to run, or so it appears. Also, do we really need year-round racing at Philadelphia Park, for example?

My real beef, though, is with so-called “premier” tracks like Churchill and Belmont whose races at times are coming up short. These are supposed to represent the best of the best, yet why are they carding races with few horses? Is there no penalty for trainers habitually nominating, drawing post positions, and then scratching for apparently no good reason? It’s just so disappointing.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Valerie wrote:Also, do we really need year-round racing at Philadelphia Park, for example?


Absolutely not.

In Pennsyvlania there are but three tracks going at the moment. Presque Isle Downs, Penn National and Philadelphia Park. All of which are being fueld by slots-propelled purses and are not reliant on the fans wagering on the races.

This may not be a major problem at the moment but with the overracing that is likely by the end of the year, (especially state-breds) the horses may not have much left to give next season.

But I seriously doubt those in Harrisburg will care as long as they get their cut from all three tracks, from each race, from each pool, every racing day.

The problem in California has always been the unadressed use of medication on the backstretches. Since that was "covered up" by synthetics surfaces it's being revealed now with horses like The Pamplemousse, I Want Revenge, Daytona and other marquee starts being shelved until the end of the year.

How many lesser known horses are suffering the same soft-tissue injuries there? And how many are "unworthy" enough to get the proper R & R? The world may never know.

Kevin Stafford said...

Interesting discussion. I know I've heard folks from some of the mid-major tracks say themselves that they see something like a "circuit" style in the sports future.

While many of the smaller tracks are doing well form a field size perspective, it's tough to gauge what exact quality we're really getting there.

Obviously purse prices are increased drastically when the slots waterfall is turned on...which actually brings up another problem. If an owner/trainer can make $25,000 in just one race as opposed to say 3 or 4 races, won't they be sending their horses out less and less?

One element that makes me think a "circuit" might not be a bad idea: Here in the Mid Atlantic, you've got the 3 PA tracks, Delaware, Pimlico (albeit closed now, but was open through May), the WV tracks, etc. all competing.

Call me crazy, but wouldn't it make sense from an optimization and efficiency standpoint to try to at least put some of our best eggs in the same basket?

Then again, clearly that's not working at the major tracks with respect to some of their stakes and allowance fields. Good least through in some coupled entries to make it look like a full field is running.

It's a tough dilema. I'd hate to mess with something that's actually working for the smaller tracks though.